Archive | June 2012

Where’s the car, dad?

Dad met me in Chicago’s bustling O’Hare Airport on a wintry night in 1987. Hugging him, I felt a man much thinner than two years before. Dad shrugged it off to touch football. We both laughed. I urged him to eat better and take vitamins.

We retrieved my luggage then headed to a nearby parking lot. After a few minutes of aimless plodding up and down the aisles, I said, “Where’s the car?”

“I guess it’s not here,” Dad said, tugging at his sparse gray hair.

Perplexed, Dad always had excellent recall. In his younger years, he made shopping lists but rarely used them. He knew everyone’s phone number. Now he acted like a feeble old man.

“Let’s try another lot,” he said. “It’s probably there.”
Lugging my suitcase, we dodged swarms of passengers headed to the main terminal. At the end of a long day and a bumpy ride from New York City, I was ready for bed.

From Dad’s frazzled look, I sensed the car wasn’t in the second lot either. He shuffled up and down rows of parked cars, staring at every blue Pontiac. None belonged to him.

“Do you have any idea where you parked?” I asked, trying to hide my impatience.

“I’m sure it’s the next one.” He pulled out a hanky and wiped his sweaty brow despite the Windy City chill.

While Dad wandered through yet another parking lot, I listened to the grumblings in my stomach. I hadn’t eaten since lunch. Then, I caught him fumbling to open a car that obviously wasn’t his.

“Damn it, where’s the car?”

Tears swelled in his eyes and I felt like a heel. I took the keys from his trembling hand and hugged him. “It’s OK, Daddy. We’ll find the car. Do you remember anything about where you parked? Color of the car next to yours? A sign near the exit?”

He shook his head no.

“Let’s keep trying,” I said.

Continued searching eventually turned up my father’s blue Pontiac. As we drove home, silence blanketed the car. I didn’t know what to say. Neither did my father.

My mother had warned me about Dad’s fading memory. She brushed it off to normal aging. So did I. After 65 who has pinpoint recall? But after watching him for a few hours, Dad’s problems were far more ominous. I hesitated to utter the A word but it was clear he showed symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

As a child, my father helped me unravel math. At the start of every school year, Dad covered our textbooks with plain brown paper and jotted our names on each one. He shopped for groceries every Friday night. Sometimes he even cooked. If I scraped my knee, he kissed it and promised I’d feel better. On weekends, he took my older brother and me for adventures. We rode the bus to Central Park and played by the Alice in Wonderland statue. In the summer we drove to Rockaway Beach and stuffed our faces with hot dogs and potato knishes along the boardwalk. We built sand castles, swam in the ocean and let waves crash over our sunscreen slathered bodies. For mindless fun he took us to the East River to watch rats scurry along the moldy rocks. As city kids we were easy to please.

Dad worked in a factory so we scrounged to make ends meet. If there was leftover money, Dad treated us to ice cream cones dipped in sprinkles or bought us cheap games in the corner toy store. Now and then he took our family to the Greek Diner for a hunk of meat loaf and mashed potatoes swimming in gravy.

We spent a few weeks each summer at my mother’s rural Alabama home. Horrified, I watched my grandmother Ludera strangle a chicken for the evening meal. I couldn’t get the bird’s desperate clucks out of my six-year old mind as it screeched its last breath. I refused to eat fried chicken for the rest of our trip. At home, I kept up my meatless protest. My father swore that chicken in New York City came from the grocery store so I backed down and ate chicken and dumplings.

My father didn’t heed the call to “go over there” in World War II because both his parents died young. He raised his only brother Nicky, about ten years his junior. Nicky was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer when he was only 39 years old. At Nicky’s funeral, my father lost it. That was the only time I saw him cry.

Every morning he rose early and read the New York Daily News. He soaked up the evening news with Walter Cronkite. He played Solitaire and did crossword puzzles. He may have only had a high school education but my father knew what went on in the world.

Despite working in a factory, Dad left every morning dressed in a clean white shirt and tie. In winter, he wore a long wool coat and a gray fedora. He looked snazzy for a man who earned so little money and handled the printing presses.

Dad’s quick thinking saved our shabby brick apartment building from burning to the ground when I was a kid. Late one night, a careless tenant tossed a lit cigarette down the dumbwaiter. Joe Cavanaugh, our shiftless superintendent, hadn’t emptied out the trash in several days. Within seconds, a fire swirled through the garbage chute. My mother called the Fire Department and dad, clad only in cotton pajamas, hustled up and down the hallway dumping buckets of water down the dumbwaiter. The fire doused the lights and all the tenants evacuated the building, but my dad continued to pour water down the garbage chute. Soon, the Fire Department arrived and took over. Dad felt funny standing outside in his skivvies but officials praised his heroism.

Alzheimer’s picked apart his mind slowly. First his memory frittered away. He quit smoking because he forgot how. That benefitted his health although we were sorry he quit under those circumstances. Over time his behavior worsened. He walked to a nearby vet’s office to surrender his cat. The vet called my mother who retrieved both Buffy their big hairy dog and my father. My mother’s frustrations bubbled over into squabbles with my father to act normal but he couldn’t.

Mix-ups over appliance use came next. Dad looked at a toaster and said, “What’s this for?”

“Nothing,” my mother said, fearing he might stick a knife into it. Out of necessity, my mother stopped enjoying toast for breakfast. Dad was a danger to himself and others.

In between bouts of confusion and memory loss wandering started. Dad had his favorite spots. He walked to the center of town where he greeted customers dining at the Chinese restaurant. Other times he shook hands with hordes of passengers boarding the commuter rail into Chicago.

A stranger once saw my mother accompanying my father into a doctor’s office. The man said, “Is this your husband?”

“Yes,” my mother said. “Why, do you know him?”

“He stands at the train station a few mornings a week and waves to everyone. He’s the greatest guy.” The man hugged my dad and went on his way. “Hey Don, we miss you at the train station.”

Smiling, Dad waved at the man.

My mother stuffed a small card with his name, address and phone number inside his pocket. That saved his life when he roamed about five miles away. A small business owner noticed Dad standing on a street corner, mumbling to himself. She brought Dad inside, served him orange juice and called the police. The officer drove him home, thanks to the card in his wallet. Dad offered to teach the officer how to audit tax returns yet knew little about tax returns. Thankfully the officer declined.

No longer able to manage his Social Security my mother had the money taken out of his name. Dad told the bank manager that my brother Donald, who called the fat guy, stole all his money. The only truth was my brother’s ample girth.

“I felt bad taking away his independence,” my mother said. “I had no choice. He stood on the corner and often donated cash to people. I was afraid someone might hurt him.”

Soon after, the state of Illinois cancelled his driver’s license. Convinced he could drive, Dad took the car while my mother napped. He creamed another car about four blocks from home. No one was hurt and the responding officer fortunately realized my father wasn’t all there. To keep him from driving my mother had to hide the car keys. He didn’t take the loss of his license very well.

Living with my father was difficult. He rarely slept, constantly paced, and was dangerous if left alone so my mother considered adult day care. At first, she hedged. “He won’t like it.”

“He won’t know where he is,” I said from my Boston home. “Give it a chance. You’ll feel better too.”

Sure enough, as soon as she dropped him off, Dad forgot where he was. He often forgot my mother’s name or they were married. Several days a week in adult day care eased my mother’s stress.

After a few months, Dad lost control of his bowels and bladder. He tried sawing off his toe to relieve an itch. My mother could no longer ignore the need for nursing home placement.

I visited him a few months later at the home. He had no idea who I was. He looked at me and said, “Don’t I know you?”
“Yes Daddy, you know me.” I hugged him.

“Meet me friend Terry,” I said. “She drove from Boston with me.”

“I’m black too,” Dad said, referring to Terry’s African American heritage.

“No Daddy, you’re not black.”

“I’m not?”

Dad’s behavior at the home cost my mother a bundle. A picture of each patient was posted outside their room for identification. For unknown reasons, that irked my father. He ripped them apart. The home put up new photos. He tore them down too. I’m not sure why he finally stopped.

Towards the end his mind was so sacked by disease that he tore up salt packets and poured them in his slippers. He lost his false teeth. The nursing home never found them. He told everyone his children were Korean. He held hands with a strange woman who he wanted to marry and have children with. He didn’t know his name. Finally, he stopped speaking. He refused food.

My father died almost on my birthday on May 30, 1992, the result of his lifelong tobacco habit. Lung cancer, not Alzheimer’s, caused his death. Celebrating my birthday anymore is just too painful. I loved my father for teaching me respect for all living creatures, including the alley cats my neighbors shooed away. My father showed dignity and pride working in a dirty stinking factory. Who cared if we watched river rats on Sunday afternoon? We shared quality time. He loved his little girl and I adored him. He was my hero. I always hoped I made him proud.

My beautiful laundrette

Waiting at a red light today, I noticed a woman hauling clothes in a basket from a coin-operated laundry. I then strolled down memory lane to my earlier life in New York City. I moved away in 1989. Like many city residents, I owned a dual purpose shopping cart. I schlepped bags loaded with food from bustling stores like Key Food back to my apartment building on West 87th Street. When my dirty clothes piled high enough to interfere with daily living, I loaded them into my grocery cart and walked to the laundry mat on Columbus Avenue just south of West 86th Street. In winter, maneuvering on icy, snow-filled streets was often tricky but I always made it without breaking any bones.

At the laundry, I usually passed the time reading or drinking coffee. There was a 24 hour diner across the street. Now and then, I recognized people from the neighborhood so I made small talk about the weather, soaring rents, or our pet’s health.

Nothing about Manhattan life was routine. Neither was an evening at the laundry. As I folded my socks and running shorts a tiny mouse scurried by a woman’s feet. Distraught, she screamed as if her shoes were in flames. I was surprised when she jumped up on the empty seats yelling about the mouse. The hapless clerk was eating a burger and fries at the change counter, ignoring the woman’s plea for help. A disgruntled customer told her to shut up and she called him rude and insensitive. A shouting match ensued and I skipped folding my clothes. I shoved them into my nylon laundry bag and soon left. The mouse meantime was long gone, probably frightened by the escalating tension in the store. Maybe the mouse feared for its life and found a path into a nearby apartment or business. I’ll never know.

I had my own vermin infestation on West 87th Street until I found the hole in the wall from which they came. Once I filled it with steel wool and patched it with plaster, the mice didn’t return. My next trip to my beautiful launderette several weeks later was less eventful. Life in New York City, a city of at least 8 million people however was always unpredictable. It offered me surprises each day. I still miss those surprises.

laughter

Laughter is free medicine without side effects. No one over-doses from too much laughter.

Pay attention however to advertisements for popular pharmaceuticals and adverse side effects can include stroke, heart attack, gastrointestinal bleeding or even death.

Medical studies indicate that laughter leads to the healthy functioning of blood vessels. Further, laughter lowers blood pressure, elevates mood and alleviates pain from arthritis.

Can laughter improve your life?

The organized laughter movement started in 1995 by Indian physician Madan Kataria who looked for non-traditional ways for his patients to heal. Dr. Kataria stood on a Bombay (now Mumbai) street corner and asked strangers to laugh with him. At first, they hedged but eventually a small group formed. That simple gesture led to the foundation of Laughter Yoga International, a world-wide movement with 6,000 laughter clubs in over 60 countries such as the France, Canada, Jordan, Japan and Ethiopia. Annual conferences spread the joy of laughter. I attended one in San Diego last year and laughed with strangers from around the world for two and a half days. We all laugh in the same language.

The laughter movement attracts people for a variety of reasons such as divorce, death of a loved one, job loss, business failure, or foreclosure. Laughter of course cannot halt the foreclosure process but it frees you from sleepless nights and the nagging fear of a damaged credit report. Life goes on after the sharks stop biting and laughter improves self-esteem. Laughter clubs unite like-minded people who laugh for no reason. At the end of laughter clubs, people walk away with smiles and good will.

Laughter leaders hold sessions in hospitals, hospices, nursing homes and other congregate care facilities so patients can cope with chronic illnesses, pain and loss of mobility. A Luther pastor in Iowa incorporates laughter into her congregation. There are even laughter groups in prisons helping inmates adjust to long sentences and separations from family and friends. Yes indeed, people are paid to laugh.

Local laughter leader and cancer survivor Linda Scharf says laughter helped her endure tough times battling illness. A 2004 newspaper article about laughter clubs inspired her to take the two day laughter leader course. Ever since, she’s been leading laughter clubs in the East Valley. “I’ve yet to find any negative effects from laughter,” says Scharf.

On the second Friday of every month, I scream with laughter for no reason along with at least a dozen other people. Some are strangers; others are familiar faces who return month after month. Join us in Tempe at the SW Institute for Healing Arts at 1100 E. Apache Blvd. in Tempe (between Rural and McClintock) at 6 p.m. If that’s not convenient, visit www.laughteryoga.com and look for a group near you.

 

the early shelter days

I started as a volunteer at the MSCPA in Boston during the fall of 1989 when they were open on Sundays from 10:30 to 4:30. The medium-sized shelter on Huntington Avenue was a short drive from my East Cambridge apartment. Sandwiched amidst a growing upscale section of Jamaica Plain and a shoddy neighborhood with housing projects, drugs and gangs, the shelter and the veterinary hospital attached to it, Angell Memorial, served a large segment of the greater Boston area.

I waltzed in while workers cleaned cages with a harsh disinfectant, scooped poop, changed cat litter, and fed animals, a daily procedure at all shelters. After brief introductions, someone handed me a bucket and I got busy. During graduate school I worked as a cleaning lady to supplement my student loans. Slopping around a mop at the animal shelter was no big deal. I preferred the company of shelter dogs and cats to snooty Manhattan professionals. No shelter dog ever complained if I missed a fleck of dust.

Before long, I was struck by the sheer number of animals wailing behind bars. Dogs, mostly mixed breeds, yapped for attention. The chorus of barking was often deafening. Dogs of all sizes twirled around their cages. Others chewed at their fur. All wanted out and I didn’t blame them.

Although cats were stoic they were just as depressed. A few uttered tender meows when I stroked their heads. The feline lords and ladies wanted to be home watching birds from windows or dreaming about mice, not stuck inside cages the size of breadboxes. I felt helpless. Love wasn’t enough. They needed homes and I couldn’t deliver.

To learn how the tiny front office operated, I joined the manager for a quick run through. In the pre-technology days, offices actually functioned without e-mail, websites, laptops, faxes, high speed internet, cell phones, Blackberry, laser printers, I pads, and digital cameras.

Since I’d only be at the shelter on Sundays for a few hours, there was no need to involve me in extensive office training. As a volunteer I wasn’t expected to assume office duties. Volunteers were there to assist customers with adoptions and animal care. That was fine with me. As a social worker, I dealt with people’s problems all week long and sometimes at night or weekends when I was on-call.

At the front office one morning as I gabbed with the staff, a woman showed up to relinquish her cat. Like most shelters, the MSPCA asked questions to facilitate placement of surrendered dogs or cats into forever homes. Placing adult animals was never easy.

“Why are you giving up your cat?” the clerk asked as she jotted notes on a form.

“Because it meows.”

I almost fell over. “You’re not serious, are you?” I asked, getting out of my chair. What was she expecting, a Gregorian chant? As a shelter neophyte, I had no idea that people actually relinquished dogs and cats for such inane reasons.

When the cat owner glared at me, I realized she wasn’t kidding. From that day on, I avoided the front office. My curt remarks would land me in scuffles with pet owners who gave up dogs and cats for frivolous reasons. No doubt the manager appreciated my decision.

Instead, I threw myself into walking dogs to free them from stifling confinement or petting cats to make them feel special, which of course all shelter cats were. None of the four-footed occupants resisted my heavy doses of affection.

At the end of my shift, I drove home choking back tears. My dogs Scottie and Maxine, both strays I plucked off Bronx streets, were lucky even though we lived in a dive. They slept indoors, ate twice a day and had an owner who adored them. The dogs and cats at the shelter, although cared for, had no one. Undoubtedly the manager had a hard time making the euthanasia list. How did she decide who lived and who died? Did she euthanize the big black dog because we already had two black dogs and finding a home for three black dogs was nearly impossible? I never asked her about the crushing choices she made. By the time I got home, I shifted my focus to the pets that found new homes, to the pets rescued from unsafe situations, and to the good people at the shelter. I burst through the front door and showered my dogs with affection each and every single time I left the shelter. That was the only way I could cope.

Each week as I waltzed into the MSPCA, I checked out the residents. The unlucky ones lingered; others were new. To protect myself against heartaches, I didn’t ask what happened to pets I liked. If they burned in the crematory, I didn’t want to know. Once in a while, my resistance weakened and I wanted to know.

Although I resisted Barney’s baleful brown eyes, I took interest in the senior dog, a mix of who knows what, brought in by the Boston Police. The dog’s elderly owner, a single man, suffered a massive heart attack and was rushed to a local hospital. Rather than strand Barney, EMTs called the police who escorted the mutt to the MSPCA. The shelter tried to contact the owner’s extended family but was unsuccessful. Not knowing what to do, the shelter cared for Barney. Every few days, a manager called the hospital to check on the owner but the man remained in serious condition. Family never came forward. Every week, I gave Barney an extra walk and rewarded him with special treats. I made sure he always had a comfy blanket. I feared the owner might not recover enough to care for Barney and that he would become part of the MSPCA. Older dogs and cats were rarely adopted. By this time, part of my heart belonged to Barney.

Finally, after about two months, maybe longer, the owner showed up, feeling much better. I missed the joyful reunion but the manager, said, “The old man was thrilled we took such good care of Barney. He was afraid he might’ve been put to sleep.”

“I’m glad the old dog went home,” I said, smiling. “He seemed so lost here.”

“The owner gave us $200,” the manager said. “I told him that we didn’t expect payment but he insisted. I smiled and said thanks.”

That made my day.

laughter

Laughter is free medicine without side effects. No one over-doses from too much laughter.

Pay attention however to advertisements for popular pharmaceuticals and adverse side effects can include stroke, heart attack, gastrointestinal bleeding or even death.

Medical studies indicate that laughter leads to the healthy functioning of blood vessels. Further, laughter lowers blood pressure, elevates mood and alleviates pain from arthritis.

Can laughter improve your life?

The organized laughter movement started in 1995 by Indian physician Madan Kataria who looked for non-traditional ways for his patients to heal. Dr. Kataria stood on a Bombay (now Mumbai) street corner and asked strangers to laugh with him. At first, they hedged but eventually a small group formed. That simple gesture led to the foundation of Laughter Yoga International, a world-wide movement with 6,000 laughter clubs in over 60 countries such as the France, Canada, Jordan, Japan and Ethiopia. Annual conferences spread the joy of laughter. I attended one in San Diego last year and laughed with strangers from around the world for two and a half days. We all laugh in the same language.

The laughter movement attracts people for a variety of reasons such as divorce, death of a loved one, job loss, business failure, or foreclosure. Laughter of course cannot halt the foreclosure process but it frees you from sleepless nights and the nagging fear of a damaged credit report. Life goes on after the sharks stop biting and laughter improves self-esteem. Laughter clubs unite like-minded people who laugh for no reason. At the end of laughter clubs, people walk away with smiles and good will.

Laughter leaders hold sessions in hospitals, hospices, nursing homes and other congregate care facilities so patients can cope with chronic illnesses, pain and loss of mobility. A Luther pastor in Iowa incorporates laughter into her congregation. There are even laughter groups in prisons helping inmates adjust to long sentences and separations from family and friends. Yes indeed, people are paid to laugh.

On the second Friday of every month, I scream with laughter for no reason along with at least a dozen other people. Some are strangers; others are familiar faces who return month after month. Join us in Tempe at the SW Institute for Healing Arts at 1100 E. Apache Blvd. in Tempe (between Rural and McClintock) at 6 p.m. If that’s not convenient, visit www.laughteryoga.com and look for a group near you.